The Hawaii Supreme Court today appointed an independent special master to consider which inmates in the state’s jails and prisons should be released as a measure to combat the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
Appointed was retired Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Daniel R. Foley, who will work with the parties “in a collaborative and expeditious manner” to address two petitions requested by the state Department of Public Defender seeking the release of up to 426 inmates now housed in the state’s jails, the High Court said in a release.
Foley’s job will be to listen to the arguments being made by public defenders and state prosecutors and then make recommendations on who could be released and under what conditions. The state Supreme Court would make the final decisions.
Attorney General Clare E. Connors and three of the four county prosecutors have raised reservations about a mass release, arguing that they want to be able to review inmates case-by-case before deciding whether to release them.
Foley is slated to release an initial summary report by April 9.
Foley served on the intermediate court 2000-2016. He chaired the Hawaii Access to Justice Commission and co-chaired the Hawaii Appellate Review Task Force and Committee on Equality and Access to the Courts.
Releasing inmates amid the coronavirus crisis is a debate taking place across the country, heightened by reports in recent days of extensive spread in some of the country’s largest jails and prisons. No cases had been reported in Hawaii’s correctional facilities as of Wednesday, but inmate advocates warn it might just be matter of time.
Hawaii jails are frequently so full that inmates are triple-celled or sleep on mattresses on the floors of recreation areas. Corrections officers and other employees who enter and leave the jails each day are also at risk for becoming infected and then spreading the virus, advocates warn.
Supporting Public Defender James Tabe’s action are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission and the Hawaii-based Community Alliance on Prisons.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard, the Honolulu City Council and Mothers Against Drunk Driving support the position of Connors and the prosecutors that there should be a more measured approach.